'They need us right now': New mental-health foundation aims to help struggling farmers

Farmers across Canada will soon have a new resource to turn to for support if they're dealing with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Initiative aims to break stigma through awareness and educational campaigns

Megz Reynolds and her husband, Liam Gauthier, hug their daughters on their family farm near White Bear, Sask. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Megz Reynolds points to golden fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Five years ago, she traded her busy career in Vancouver's film industry to grow grains with her husband on his family's century-old farm in central Saskatchewan near White Bear, about an hour northwest of Swift Current.

They were doing well until a hailstorm two years ago during harvest season.

"It looked like a monsoon pretty much had just hit us," said Reynolds, who also has two small children. "We had standing water in some of our fields that was well over my cowboy boots."

In 10 minutes, all of the family's crops were destroyed. Reynolds said she knew about the risks of unpredictable weather and fickle commodity prices before entering the industry, but that hasn't made the situation easier.

Gronlid, Sask., farmer Kim Keller, who has been in the business for seven years, is well aware of the tribulations of the agriculture business, but also knows the stigma. 

"We have this image that we're tough and rough and we don't need help," she said. "Or that if you do need help, that you're weak."

The goal on Reynolds and Gauthier's farm is to fill all of their grain bins. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

In an effort to address this problem, Keller is launching a new national foundation on Jan. 30 called Do More Ag, which aims to connect farmers with mental health resources through a directory and awareness campaigns.

'They need us right now'

2016 survey from the University of Guelph suggests many agricultural producers across the country are worried.

Forty-five per cent of farmers surveyed said they had high stress and 35 per cent said they had depression — which is two to four times higher than farmers studied in the United Kingdom and Norway.

Forty per cent of respondents, however, told researchers they wouldn't seek counselling due to the stigma associated with mental health and illness.

Keller said she began trying to change the culture of agriculture last summer after receiving a text message from someone in the industry who was looking for assistance after a fellow farmer committed suicide.

"Without our producers doing what they're doing, we wouldn't have this amazing industry that we have today," Keller said. "I think it's time that we actually focus on the people behind the production, because they need us right now."

Melfort, Sask., farmer Kim Keller is launching the Do More Ag foundation to break the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness in agriculture. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The idea of working on the land and being your own boss is attractive to farmers, but they are also beholden to the weather and most contend with competition.

"You kind of get one kick at the can a year," Reynolds said. "So [if you have a bad harvest] you're waiting until next year to be able to try to put another crop in, and hopefully have good weather, have your crops grow great, have no bugs, then have no disease and then have prices be high."

Admitting she needed mental health support has been a challenge for Reynolds.

"Even if you've done everything right, you still feel that to say that you're struggling or to say that you're having troubles with something, that it's your fault," Reynolds said. "We're so tied into being able to produce food for other people that when we're not able to do that, it just rocks us."

Reynolds said she's felt isolation, even when she turned to her friends back home. After sharing the story of the devastating hailstorm, "One of them tried to make me feel better by saying she's had hail on her garden," Reynolds said. "You just can't compare the two."

Creating a safe haven

Do More Ag is a not-for-profit organization that will collect money to educate the agriculture industry on mental health and provide access to services, according to Keller.

Reynolds and Gauthier's crops were ruined in August 2016 after a 10-minute hailstorm. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, commends Keller's efforts.

"They [people in rural areas] might not even realize it that they're actually depressed," Orb said. "After a while, it gets to be a way of life."

In Saskatchewan, there is a confidential telephone counselling service called the Farm Stress Line.

"Obviously, that does help," Orb said. "But there needs to be, I think, something after that to help people and maybe we can devise something by listening to people like Kim."

Reynolds said her family is still trying to make up for their losses. She hopes Keller's foundation will encourage more people in the agriculture industry to open up about mental health struggles.

"There's still the stigma and people who are going to judge you a certain way," Reynolds said. "They may not say nice things to you because you put your story out there. So I think to have a safe place that could bring farmers together, allow them to help each other and help themselves could be a really valuable asset."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: